New year, same me – nourish not punish

Many of us want to put in place good well-being and exercise habits for the new year but how do we over-ride our natural desire to snuggle under the duvet and reach for some snacks. This is what radio presenter Bob Johnson and I were discussing on Wycombe Sound this morning. Have a listen here:

Talking with Bob Johnson of Wycombe Sound Radio on the topic of New Year and Well-Being

My top tips:

Avoid the pitfalls of setting unrealistic short-term goals like losing 2 stone in a month. Consider goals beyond weight such as how you want to feel in your mind and body. Perhaps you want to relieve physical tension from sitting at a desk, or mental tension from the stress of work/life. Do you want to be able to touch your toes or look and feel stronger? These will give you clues as to what type of exercise might suit you best.

Shop around and find a fitness partner – you’re investing time and money so find the right exercise and instructor for you. Avoid the latest exercise trend and find a format, instructor and environment that makes you want to go to class and that’s convenient to your routine. Like a meaningful relationship – can you see yourself doing this long-term? Most instructors will provide the first class free – so ask if you can attend a session to see if it’s for you.

Pace yourself – there’s no such thing as immediate results but you can get injured immediately. Ease your way back in and don’t miss the warm up and cool down. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing as this is when we push ourselves beyond our limits. Listen to your body and compete only with yourself – being a little bit fitter and stronger than the last session is enough.

Nourish yourself – most of us want to feel strong, supple and energised so we can do more of the things we love and live in minds and bodies that are as free from tension, stress and injury as we can. So think of exercise as a way to nourish yourself not punish yourself. If you love high octane exercise then great – there’s loads of HiiT style workouts out there but it’s not the only way to get results and feel strong and supple. Low impact exercise such as Pilates, Yoga or Tai Chi can have amazing results while relieving tension and pain not creating it. Combine gentler, but no less effective, forms of exercise with other things that make you feel great like eating well, sleeping well and having fun and you’ve created great habits for the new year that will last.

#pilates #newyearnewyou #sustainablefitness #nourishnotpunish #newyearsameyou #exerciseforwellbeing #wellbeing #selfcare #nourish #lowimpact #groupexercise #wycombesound

The Pilates High

Photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels

“I don’t get the endorphin buzz from Pilates that I get from running” is a criticism, and even a barrier, to Pilates that I hear a lot as an instructor.  I totally get it. I’m a runner and the two forms of exercise provide very different things.  However, I argue that Pilates still gives you a high – there’s just a subtle difference between the two.  

Firstly, does running actually give you a physical high? The evidence says yes.  The high is a mix of chemicals, including endorphins and endocannabinoids, that seems to be a biological reward that kept our ancestors hunting and foraging. Kelly McGonigal PhD summarises the research here:

Although we might not be biologically primed to do Pilates for our very survival, Pilates is still movement and even gentler movement comes with built in neuro and muscular benefits.  Caroline Williams in her book MOVE! The science of body over mind, explains that simply standing and moving give a boost for the mind and body.  And in part it comes down to gravity.  “Physiological changes happen when we put weight on our bones, and what that, in turn, does to our minds. We tend to think of bones as dry white sticks that hold up our insides, but in reality bone is a living tissue that is constantly built up and broken down to adjust to the stresses we put upon it.  And our bones are in constant communication with our brains – what they talk about depends on how much we ask them to move while resisting the pull of gravity”.

In Pilates we use body weight resistance and gravity to ‘load our bones’ to help boost this chemical bone building process as well as strengthen our muscles. Strong muscles are linked to stronger self-esteem and confidence.  In Williams’ book she explores the link between stress responses and the core muscles. Although this is an emerging science the evidence is pointing at the benefits of “oiling the psoas muscle by moving more and strengthening it along with the rest of the core to help build a healthier, more adaptable stress response”. 

And in terms of the buzz…. “By focusing on breath, Pilates improves cardiorespiratory capacity. This stimulates feel-good hormones, oxygen flow, and blood circulation”. Full article here. The power of the breath to unlock a swathe of well-being benefits is a hot topic andabsolutely fundamental to Pilates. Most Pilates movements have a set breath pattern to help deepen the muscular work but Joseph Pilates was also a believer in the power of breath to cleanse the system and mind.

And finally there’s the social element too. Social connection is known to be fundamental to our happiness – moving together in a synchronised flow while having a giggle in class, all add up to a high that might not be endorphin related but has a well-being benefit of its own. No one ever regrets going for a run or getting on the mat!

#pilates #pilateshigh #pilatesbenefits #rethinkpilates #powerofmovement #move #core #bones #muscle #fascia #carolinewilliams

The power of visualisations

Go to any good Pilates class and within 1 hour you’ll hear dozens and dozens of descriptions for how the movements should feel in your body.  Visualisations help students to co-ordinate their bones, muscles and breath within a simple sentence.  Joseph Pilates himself used words that would help convey his intention for the body and movement such as calling the core the ‘powerhouse’ – a really evocative and practical explanation for how to engage and perceive the core.

It’s a wonderfully creative challenge for any teacher to develop their own repertoire of creative visualisations for their students.  For example, a standing warm-up exercise I use is imagining you have a ribbon in each hand with a helium balloon attached at the top.  With a slow steady inhale lengthen through the body and allow both arms and heels to float up so you’re gently pulled skyward, then gently exhale as you lower the balloons by drawing your hands back to your sides and lowering your heels and connecting to the floor.  We repeat this a few times – lengthening and elongating our bodies, aligning our posture, finding our balance, breathe and grounding before we start class.   

Person reaching skyward
Reaching skyward.
Photo by luizclas from Pexels

I use the helium balloons a lot – for any sense of length and drawing away from the floor. For example in 4-point kneeling movements like Superman where students might start to tire and slump into their bodies, I ask them to imagine helium balloons tied around their shoulders and hips and imagine they’re floating up to the ceiling.  On the opposite end of the spectrum when we do standing balance work, I ask them to imagine heavy paint cans in their hands and on their shoulders as we lift and extend one leg – this can help engage the core and ground the muscles of the standing leg.  

Visualisations for the spine are incredibly effective – you can literally see spines unlock.  Outside of class we tend to treat the back as a source of strength, a lever for lifting and carrying.  In class we give back to our backs by allowing it to move to its full range and capacity.  We roll through the spine in standing ‘like peeling wallpaper off a wall’, twist ‘like we’re ringing out a sponge with our waist muscles’, articulate the back ‘like a bicycle chain’ in bridge and lengthen the spine ‘imaging popping pockets of air between the vertebrae’.  

Something powerful happens in the neuromuscular connection when the mind is given a visual for the desired movement outcome. The body is no longer just muscle and bone, the mind and body connect and the movement becomes more natural and fluid. There have been many excellent books written on the subject with this one being my favourite. I love the creative opportunity to develop visualisations that help students truly embody the movements. If you have any favourites as a teacher or student do share!

#creativevisualisations #embodiedmovement #pilates #movementdescriptions #proprioception #zenergyactive #mindandbody 

How do I engage my core?

All Pilates exercises, and most movements in life, originate from the core. Not being able to engage the core muscles means not being able to get the most from workouts, or from our bodies in general. A weak core can lead to postural deviations, back issues and injuries. So helping my students engage their core is a vital part of a Pilates teacher’s role. I’ve shared some tips on how I do this below.

First of all what is the core? Most of us picture a 6-pack at the front of our stomachs.  Joseph Pilates called the core ‘The Powerhouse’, a term that broadens and more accurately describes the role of the muscles at the centre of the body.  

The Powerhouse muscles include; the transverse abdominis, obliques, multifidus, quadratus lumborum (mid and lower back), glutes and hips.  These muscles connect and interconnect from the back of the spine/pelvis/ribs and wrap around to the front with the pelvic floor at the bottom and the diaphragm at the top.  

To activate our Powerhouse in preparation for movement we use the breath. The core muscles are used in abdominal (or diaphragmatic) breathing, which is why we use this breathing pattern in Pilates.

I ask students to place one hand on their ribs and one hand on their stomach as I explain the process and see if they can sense/feel the movement under their hands.  When we breathe in the ribs expand allowing the diaphragm to move down, sucking air into the lungs and pushing the abdominal contents down, this forces the abdominal wall out. When we breathe out the diaphragm relaxes, air passes out of the lungs and the abdominal muscles contract as they flatten.  

So we take 3 slow steady breaths in and out through the nose and see if we can feel the ribs expand under our hand on the inhale, then on the exhale we try to sense the stomach wall move away from the other hand as the stomach muscles contract.  

Sometimes this is enough for students to get/feel the connection between core engagement and breathing.  But if not, we can explore this further by looking at the rib cage and stomach engagement separately. 

For the ribs –  I ask students to wrap a long resistance band around the rib cage and hold it at the front of the body.  We then relax the shoulders and practice breathing deeply and steadily with a focus on stretching the band on the inhale by getting the rib cage to expand, then on the exhale notice how the band loosens slightly as the ribs knit back together. 

For the stomach muscles – I ask students to place their index and middle fingers just inside their hip bones and press into the abdominal wall quite firmly.  We then do a ‘straw breath’, imagining we’re blowing through a straw slowly on the exhale.  I ask them to sense/visualise the contraction of the stomach muscles and the drawing up and in of the pelvic floor and even a slight squeeze of the glutes that naturally happens.  By doing this we’re creating the stomach pressure we want for some of the more challenging Pilates movements.  

Finally, I ask them to imagine that if I threw a ball firmly at their stomachs while they were exhaling, it would just bounce off, not leaving them winded.  

This can seem like an overwhelming amount of information and not all students can feel it first time.  It would be easy to default to terms like ‘tighten your corset/belt’, ‘tummy to spine’ or ‘scoop your belly’ but in my experience this creates tightness in the chest and shoulders and compromises posture.  It’s worth taking the time to persevere because once it’s locked into the muscle memory it becomes second nature creating a safe and effective Pilates practice as well as improved movement, posture and breathing from your powerhouse for life. 

#pilates #coreengagement #powerhouse #pilatesteacher #corecontrol #coremovement #breathing #pilatesbreathing #abdominalbreathing #coremuscles #zenergyactive #zenergystudio

The Zen & Energy of the Olympics

The Olympics provides a fascinating glimpse of what it takes to achieve incredible athletic feats.  Most of the training techniques are beyond us mere mortals but many athletes use breathing techniques to gain a competitive edge either to create calm and focus or power and energy.    

One of the BBC commentary team explained how horse riders have to avoid transferring pre-event stress to their horses as they can literally feel the tension in the rider’s body, and this will cause the horses muscles to tense in response.  So apparently lots of riders’ hum to activate their diaphragm which stimulates the vagus nerve and therefore the parasympathetic nervous system (our rest and digest state) fast tracking the rider (and horse) to a state of calm.  

On the opposite end of the spectrum the shot-putters, who are throwing the weight of a bowling ball over 23 feet in the air, need to generate strength and power in a matter of seconds.  As they release the shotput, they use a loud grunt to create exactly the right amount of intraabdominal pressure around the torso to create the dynamic strength and stability needed for the load.  

Creating a strong centre or core like this is fundamental to Pilates.  Joseph Pilates called our core the ‘powerhouse’.  All Pilates movements emanate from our powerhouse first before we add movement, this ensures we’re creating the right amount of tension and muscle control for a safe and effective Pilates practice.  

The diaphragm is a key muscle in breathing due to its relationship to our respiratory organs – it moves out of the way for the lungs to expand, then applies pressure to the lungs to exhale.  It also has attachments to the surrounding muscles and bones (including the spine), so by breathing diaphragmatically we effectively engage our core muscles, align our spine and gain the advantages of the nervous rider by calming our minds too. 

To create intra-abdominal pressure for yourself start by standing tall and strong, collar bone wide, shoulders relaxed in neutral spine.  Now breathe in slowly and sense your rib cage expand, exhale slowly but firmly through pursed lips or imagine blowing through a straw.  Tune into the intrabdominal pressure you create around your centre. If you place your fingers just inside your hip bones, you should feel your abdominal wall contracting on the exhale.  This is also a fundamental way to engage your pelvic floor but that’s a whole other subject!  I often get asked – how much pressure should I create – as much as necessary for the activity but as little as possible.

You may also notice how this slow steady breathing and alignment of your body creates a sense of calm – you’re also benefitting from the diaphragm’s relationship to the vagus nerve just as the horse riders do – hence the mental and physical benefits of Pilates.  Let me know how you get on. 

#olympics #powerhouse #diaphragm #core #pilates #mindandbody #zen #energy #zenergyactive #corecontrol #intraabdominalpressure #josephpilates #breathing